What we learned from Michelle Obama’s new op-ed about girl’s education

At the end of September, First Lady Michelle Obama enlisted the help of celebrities like Beyoncé, Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington, and Stephen Colbert to raise awareness for her new #62milliongirls campaign, a part of the Let Girls Learn initiative she and President Obama launched last spring. Ever since, Mrs. Obama has been doggedly pursuing her goal to get every school-age girl in the world the education they so desperately need. She’s been spreading this message through television appearances, a girls’ education tour in the Middle East — and now, a moving op-ed.

In a rare move for a serving First Lady, Mrs. Obama turned to the distinguished pages of The Atlantic to share her insights on the importance of universal girls’ education. Here are the highlights of the FLOTUS open letter.

On the effects of sexist cultural norms on girls’ education

While these investments [in education] are absolutely necessary to solve our girls’ education problem, they are simply not sufficient. Scholarships, bathrooms, and safe transportation will only go so far if societies still view menstruation as shameful and shun menstruating girls. Or if they fail to punish rapists and reject survivors of rape as “damaged goods.” Or if they provide few opportunities for women to join the workforce and support their families, so that it’s simply not financially viable for parents struggling with poverty to send their daughters to school.

In other words, we cannot address our girls’ education crisis until we address the broader cultural beliefs and practices that can help cause and perpetuate this crisis.

On how incremental shifts changed American culture

We know that legal and cultural change is possible because we’ve seen it in countries around the world, including our own. A century ago, women in America couldn’t even vote . . . but in each generation, brave people—both men and women—stood up to change these practices. They did it through individual acts like taking their bosses to court, fighting to prosecute their rapists, and leaving their abusive husbands—and through national movements and legislation that brought changes like the 19th Amendment, Title IX, and the Violence Against Women Act.   

Cultural shifts like these can spur countries to make greater investments in girls’ education. And when they do, that can cause a powerful ripple effect that can lead to even greater cultural and political progress on behalf of women.

On the proven benefits of educating girls

Girls who are educated marry later, have lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, and are more likely to immunize their children and less likely to contract HIV. Educated girls also earn higher salaries—15 to 25 percent more for each additional year of secondary school—and studies have shown that sending more girls to school can boost an entire country’s GDP.

And when educated girls become healthy, financially secure, empowered women, they’re far better equipped to advocate for their needs and aspirations, and challenge unjust laws and harmful practices and beliefs. So really, this can be a virtuous cycle.

On girls’ education as a moral issue

These girls are no different from my daughters or any of our daughters. And we should never have to accept our girls having their bodies mutilated or being married off to grown men as teenagers, confined to lives of dependence and abuse. We should never have to raise them in societies that silence their voices and snuff out their dreams. None of us here in the U.S. would accept this for our own daughters and granddaughters, so why would we accept it for any girl on our planet?

On her plans to keep on advocating for girls’ education once President Obama leaves office

As a first lady, a mother, and a human being, I cannot walk away from these girls, and I plan to keep raising my voice on their behalf for the rest of my life. I plan to keep urging world leaders to invest in their potential and create societies that truly value them as human beings. I plan to keep reaching out to local leaders, families, and girls themselves to raise awareness about the power of sending girls to school. And I plan to keep talking about this issue here at home, because I believe that all of us—men and women, in every country on this planet—have a moral obligation to give all of these girls a future worthy of their promise and their dreams.  

Read the op-ed in its entirety here.

Related reading: 

Michelle Obama gave 1,000 school girls life advice, and we’re hanging on her every word

What we can learn from Michelle Obama’s commencement speech

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